The Oxford English Dictionary made “post-truth” its 2016 Word of the Year, noting that use of the word had increased 2,000 percent over its usage in 2015. Oxford defined post-truth as occurring when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Wikipedia’s entry, meanwhile, chimed in with its own definition of post-truth as “the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.”
All well and good. But, you have to wonder: Are these definitions talking about politics or sales and marketing?
The reason I ask is that part of running any company entails communicating with your market and employees. In every one of those interactions. you're called on to make decisions about “the truth.” And many of those decisions are non-controversial, while others entice you to be more liberal in your characterization of the truth -- as in, “We now have over 1,000 customers” -- since the definition of "customer" is often stretched to be as flattering as possible.
What's more, in the Post-Truth Era, you might be wondering, Will I need to be even more liberal in my treatment of "the truth" just to keep up with my competitors? Actually, now seems like the perfect time to make truth a priority: You can differentiate yourself from your competitors and increase your chances for long-term loyalty and customer growth by emphasizing clarity, honesty and reality.
Stretching the truth, on the other hand, is tempting; but misleading customers can have disastrous consequences. One recent example was Volkswagen's fuel efficiency claims for its diesel vehicles, which resulted in billions of dollars of lost value. Another was the Irish meat company Tesco, which lost over $400 million in market cap in its horse meat fiasco. Trust and credibility are hard to come by, and very easy to lose.
Laws protect consumers from false advertising, but they probably aren’t going to help you deal with a misleading competitor. Remember when POM sued Coca-Cola over the latter's Minute-Maid blueberry-pomegranate juice (which contained less than 0.5 percent of both fruits, combined)? That case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ultimately, a California jury decided in favor of post-truth juice.
So, there it is: The truth is not always self-evident, meaning you’ll need to win by persuading the market that the truth matters.
Every day, we are tempted to mislead in small ways, by stretching the truth just a bit. And, in the sales and marketing universe, teams are measured on short-term goals. It's therefore natural for them to want to make trade-offs that don’t prioritize the long-term needs of their company and brand.
Which way do you choose to go? Here are four things you can do to make truth a competitive advantage:
1. Define your standards for truth.
Truth is a term that gets thrown around by people in every department in your company, but it’s likely rhat everyone has a different definition. What’s the truth about your product? Your engineers would say “Read the documentation,” while your sales and marketing teams would say there’s a bigger story to tell that is tailored for each customer.
So, have your leadership team review this list of false advertising tactics. Ask whether any of these apply to you today. Work with team members to define standards, and distribute them broadly across your company.
2. Make truth part of your culture.
You need to uphold your standards about truth, and call people out when they don’t follow the rules. Use your weekly leadership meetings as an opportunity to review ongoing decisions and to settle points of confusion or contention.
Use town halls and internal communications to illustrate that this is a value that is core to the company: Showcase stories where using the truth has helped you win. Your stories can’t simply be about doing the right thing; they have to be about gaining a competitive advantage.
3. Appoint a final judge.
There will always be gray areas, and you need to identify someone who has the responsibility of deciding what is right for the company. It might be your CEO, or someone entrusted with the final say, whose judgment is respected by others (at my company this person is the VP of strategy). What's important here is that you're not deciding whether to break the law. You're deciding the right tone or angle to use when multiple options are equally valid and reasonable.
Having a final judge is important, in terms of process and emphasizing the importance to employees. But you should work hard to avoid creating bureaucracy, by making the process efficient and transparent.
4. Measure and reinforce.
I believe that being truthful will give you a competitive advantage in the short and long term. Ask customers, Do you believe our teams are telling you the truth? Did our product or service live up to the expectations set by your sales and marketing teams?
Then ask yourself, Do our customers support our view that “sticking to the facts” gives us a competitive advantage? After all, it’s hard to argue with data. And, ultimately, that’s what the truth is all about.
The Post-Truth Era has created a moment of general ambiguity and confusion. Sources of truth we used to take for granted are now questioned. This is the perfect time to center and ground your audience in rationality, and to demonstrate value by reestablishing confidence in the notion that logical thought, evidence and truth matter and lead people to good outcomes.
Related: Jessica Alba's 'Honest' Mess
Sales and marketing teams are on the front lines of your conversation with the market, and you must arm them with the right tools to make truth your competitive advantage.